Fullerenes, a form of solid carbon distinct from diamond and graphite, owe their discovery to a supersonic jet—but not of the airplane variety. At Rice University in 1985 the late Richard E. Smalley, Robert F. Curl and Harold W. Kroto (visiting from the University of Sussex in England), along with graduate students James R. Heath and Sean C. O’Brien, were studying carbon with a powerful tool that Smalley had helped pioneer: supersonic jet laser spectroscopy. In this analytical system, a laser vaporizes bits of a sample; the resulting gas, which consists of clusters of atoms in various sizes, is then cooled with helium and piped into an evacuated chamber as a jet. The clusters expand supersonically, which cools and stabilizes them for study.